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What Is A Service Dog, Really?

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

I want to start with a huge Disclaimer - I don't recommend Azawakh as a breed for service dog work. Typically, they are too environmentally aware and often too reactive to do the job effectively.

Anubi tucked relatively nicely in a crowded line on the way back from Florida

Anubi is my service dog. I don't look like I have a life altering disability, but I do. I have a life threatening nut allergen, one that is triggered even by aerosolized nut oil particles. Anubi's job is to alert me to those odors before my allergens are triggered so that I can leave the area. Over time he has also developed natural alerts to my migraines.

Now, what is a Service Dog (SD)?

A Service Dog is a dog that has been highly trained in tasks to mitigate their handler/owner's majorly life altering disabilities. There is so much confusion around how Service Dogs work I want to go over some of them. Please remember that one dog can perform a variety of tasks for instance they are primarily a mobility dog that does some psych work, etc.

  • There are many different types of Service Dogs. Most people tend to think of Guide Dogs and the like, not realizing how many different ways dogs can mitigate peoples disabilities. Some of these include:

  1. Guide- dogs guide sight impaired individuals to help them navigate their life safely. Tasks include- keeping them centered on the side walk, guiding them to corners, doors, and other important landscape features, stopping them at intersections, and more.

  2. Medical Alert- this includes alerts to various illnesses and conditions such as (but not limited to) severe allergens, gluten allergies and sensitivities, blood sugar swings caused by diabetes, high heart rate or blood pressure, migraines, seizures, and more. Their tasks regarding these disabilities might be to alert their human to a change in their condition so they can take medication, lead their handler from the area, retrieve medication, and more.

  3. Mobility- dogs have flexible spines and are not built to carry people, like horses. However within certain specification dogs can assist people by providing support, stability, grounding, and bracing. These specifications generally include the dog being a certain percentage of their handler's height and weight as well as having had radiographs done to confirm their growth plates are closed and the dog has no underlying physical conditions such as hip dysplasia. Mobility isn't solely about weight bearing and bracing tasks, other mobility tasks can include retrieving things for their owner (water bottle from the fridge, groceries, etc), opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, and more.

  4. Hearing Assistance- these dogs are trained to alert hearing impaired individuals. Some of their tasks might be to alert their handler to a fire alarm, knock at the door, phone call, and more.

  5. Psychiatric- these dogs help alert their owner to changes in their mental state. Dogs can be used to calm their handler through Deep Pressure Therapy, interruption of self-harm, grounding, blocking (standing in front or behind their handler to give them slightly more physical room), limited guidework (help their handler find the nearest exit), fetch help, and more. Psychiatric Service Dogs are highly trained animals who have specific tasks to do. While they do provide comfort to their handler most have been trained to recognize when their handler's disability is going to effect them, often before their handler even realizes. Deep Pressure Therapy is more than the dog laying on top of them, it is the dog recognizing their handlers signs, understanding that they should apply Deep Pressure Therapy, encouraging their handler to prepare to receive it, and then applying it. For individuals who need a psychiatric Service Dog it can be very triggering for the dog to be noticed and it can be a careful line to walk whether the tasks the dog performs outweigh the attention Service Dogs draw.

  • Service Dogs cannot be "certified". There is no such thing as a Service Dog certification in a legally binding way. Those certifications and cards you can buy off the internet mean nothing and, worse, they are confusing. When people repeatedly see those cards they begin to think legitimate teams need them. This can cause access problems for the team. There are training organizations that give certificates and the like to dogs that pass their programs, but those are very different from the "certifications" which cannot be legally binding. Any "service dog registry" is just a scam for money. No one can ask for a Service Dog's ID or certification in order to prove they are a Service Dog (there are a few slight exceptions regarding psychiatric dogs under federal aviation and federal housing laws, but I am referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws which govern most instances). There are tests that assess a dog's readiness for Public Access work including the basic Canine Good Citizen, the Advanced Canine Good Citizen, the Urban Good Citizen (AKC's closest simulation of the true Public Access test), and the Public Access Test designed to assess how your ready your dog is for Public Access work. A Service Dog does not have to pass any of these to be considered a SD.

  • Service Dogs do not need to be trained through a SD training organization, though most Guide Dogs are. A SD does not need to be professionally trained at all. The ADA allows for owners to self-train. The main reason for this stipulation is that often disabled individuals are already low-income and requiring a SD be professionally trained creates an undue burden on the individual.

  • When working in a public space that is not typically accessible to dogs (referred to in the Service Dog community as Public Access) business employees, managers, and owners have the right to ask two questions. 1) Is that a Service Dog? 2) What are the dog's tasks. If the answer is: No to the first question, the team can be asked to leave and only have the handler return without the dog. If the answer to the second question is: I don't know, they're not task trained, they provide me comfort, or anything other than listing a category of trained tasks (defined above) then the team can be asked to leave and only return without the dog. Please note that I specify that the staff, manager, or owner of the business are allowed to ask these questions, the public is not. If you suspect a service dog is a fake then by law you should bring the issue to the attention of the staff of the establishment.

  • If a dog is not under the owner's control, disruptive, or not potty trained businesses may ask a Service Dog team to leave and return without the dog.

  • Individuals might work more than one Service Dog, this is allowable under ADA guidelines. A common instance of this is when you are training a new Service Dog in Training (SDiT) to replace your older retiring SD. However, other instances include having a small breed that does medical alert and psych tasks and a larger breed that provides mobility assistance.

  • Not every Service Dog works outside the house. Some people primarily need assistance inside their house. Just because a SD doesn't do Public Access doesn't make them less of a SD.

  • It varies by state whether Service Dogs in Training get Public Access rights. There are some states that have no restrictions, some that require the dog to be part of a program or trained professionally to have PA, and some that do not have PA rights at all. In Washington, SDiT do not have PA rights, though individuals may discuss exceptions with individual business owners.

  • When state and federal laws regarding SDs effect, generally the broader and more permissive law is the one that takes precedent.

  • SDs do not need to wear identifying gear, though it does help if Public Access questions arise. There are times when it is too hot, the handler was just running a quick errand and forgot the dog's vest, or so many other reasons why a dog might work unvested. Many handlers find the vest as a useful signal to let their dog know it's time to work. Vest comes off it's time to let their dog be a dog. But that is not always the case.

  • Unless a SD is actively tasking, leash laws do apply.

  • It is at an owner's discretion when a dog moves from SDiT to SD status, but the dog must be completely non-disruptive and task trained to have PA rights.

  • A Service Dog can be any breed, but most typical are the "Fab 4" Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Standard Poodles, and Collies (Smooth or Rough).

Please check the ADA site for more information on Service Dogs. Though I have tried to be thorough there are many nuances about Service Dogs that I'm certain I've forgotten.

What do you do as the general public if you see a Service Dog team?

Ignore the dog and handler. Don't bring attention to them. Don't ask to pet the dog, approach the team, take pictures,distract the dog, or even stare overly long. People with their Service Dogs just want to get through the day. Their dogs aren't there for you amusement. People with disabilities don't have Service Dogs because they want to take their dogs everywhere, they have an urgent need. Service Dogs aren't there for the general public's entertainment.

What's the difference between a Service Dog (SD), a Therapy Dog (TD), and an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

  • Service Dogs are detailed extensively above but the key characteristics are the dog is 1) highly trained to be non-disruptive if in public spaces 2) task trained to mitigates a disability for an individual 3) working for a specific individual. They are not subject to any pet fees or housing restrictions. Employers must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with SDs. They are considered medical equipment in the law's eye.

  • Therapy Dogs are dogs that visit facilities such as hospitals, assisted living facilities, and schools to provide emotional comfort and stress relief. They typically are 1) highly trained to be non-disruptive in their facilities 2) comforting multiple individuals other than their handlers. Typically Therapy Dogs must be certified by an organization in order for them to be covered by insurance. This sometimes involves passing the Canine Good Citizen test and then undergoing an individualized temperament test through the organization or it could be by taking a test such as the popular Therapy Dog Inc test.

  • Emotional Service Animals as animals that have 1) no specific required training 2) provides comfort to a specific individual 3) is prescribed by a doctor to aid the individual's mental health. Emotional Service Animals do not have public access rights. They are allowed to fly without cost (with most airlines at this time). They are not subject to pet fees when renting an apartment or housing restrictions.

This is a helpful graphic to explain the differences visually.

I've talked before about Anubi being a Therapy Dog. This might be confusing. In this case he started therapy dog work before I started training him as a service dog and I didn't want to deprive him of that experience once he became my Service Dog. Typically, it is not recommended that a dog be both. It is a Therapy Dog's job to focus on others. It is a Service Dog's job to focus on their handler. It can be difficult to swap between the two roles. Many people at the facility we visit have remarked on the fact that he really enjoys saying hi to all the residents, but he always has eyes for me, and that's true and I'm grateful for it.

Anubi in training at fourteen months at a food festival - he actively alerted me while there

I started training Anubi for allergen detection after starting him on Scentwork and being extremely impressed with his aptitude in it. I'd had several reactions that year and they were getting notably more violent. So I began training him to detect nut odor. I started with oil on cotton swabs, just like in scent detection sports. I then moved on to using the nuts themselves, nut power, and then the nuts in things like spice blends and as ingredients in food. My allergy is severe enough in the beginning stages I could wear a mask and gloves to mitigate any reactions. Once we began testing the odor in food, aerosolized form, or large concentrations I had to get my husband to help me (and work my dog when I wasn't home and wouldn't be for several hours). Now, multiple times, Anubi has alerted me to nut odor before I reacted and allowed me to remove myself from the room before a reaction. Over time, Anubi has also developed a natural alert (I didn't train it) to my migraines and he does provide Deep Pressure Therapy for me, but those will remain secondary tasks for me.

15 month old Anubi, still in training, practicing at a very busy outdoor festival

I had started the necessary obedience for Public Access work long before making Anubi my SDiT (now SD). I wanted a dog that I could take everywhere I was legally allowed. He could settle at my feet in public, he'd passed his Therapy Dog test at a year old and the Urban Canine Good Citizen at 15 months. That was conveniently the easiest part because I'm a dog trainer and it's what I expect of my pet dogs anyway. The obedience and focus portion is option why Service Dogs get washed by their owners.

I got lucky, honestly. By the time my allergens were truly crippling my life I knew that the dog I

12 month old Newfoundland Oliver demonstrates big dogs can tuck

wanted to train had both the temperament and the obedience necessary. In the Service Dog community breeds outside the Fab 4 are referred to as "off breeds". I know some truly kick-ass (pardon my language, but they're incredible dogs) off-breed service dogs including a Pharaoh Hound, Silken Windhound, Whippet, Husky, Catahoula, Samoyed, and Red Bone Coonhound. However, I have witness people and clients wash off-breeds far more often than they succeed. There are other breeds gaining popularity for service work: Great Danes, Newfoundlands, German Shepherd, but the reason the Fab 4 is referred to as such is because those four breeds are most likely to have a lower wash rate than other breeds. Many service dog training organizations have done studies and tests into this.

A good Service Dog is:

  • Environmentally sound- they don't tend to startle at the new and novel and if they do, they recover quickly.

  • Socially neutral- This means they don't seek out attention from people other than their handler, they don't react to the presence of other dogs (personally this is the biggest reason I've seen labs and goldens wash).

  • Handler focused- They watch their handler and aren't easily distracted. This can be trained, but it is easier to have some natural handler focus (or at the very least excellent food or toy drive).

  • Excited to work and has the stamina to do so. There are many times that SDs are called on to go out and work all day as their human goes about their daily life. For an average pet dog, 30 minutes is a very long time to do a training session. Service dogs might need to actively be focused for hours at a time.

  • Able to settle and has an off switch. While there are times when an SD needs to work for hours, there's other times when they need to be tucked out of the way and invisible until they are needed.

  • Emotionally resilient- if a person comes up and gets in their face, they shouldn't get upset or stay upset long. If they get bumped into they shouldn't shut down or get upset about it. Emotional resiliency is a topic that requires its own post, but I cannot stress its importance enough.

12 month old Newfoundland Oliver - SDiT

Those are really just some of the traits that a Service Dog needs to succeed. That is what I look for when assessing suitability for service work and I can tell you have assessed more dogs are unsuitable than suitable. The Fab 4 can tick all of those boxes, most are relatively popular and so they have a wide gene pool to work from, many SD organizations already have populations they're working with. I will always firmly be of the opinion that any breed (or mix) could be a Service Dog, but I have to concede the success rate will be higher within certain breeds. And while affording a Service Dog can be difficult there are programs that can help.

Hopefully that answers any questions you didn't even know you had about Service Dogs, but please do reach out if you have more questions. I'm not an expert but I have trained two Service Dogs from start to finish and am working with a third currently, as well as providing specific task training to a variety of clients over the years. At the very least, I can point you in the right direction to answer your questions.

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